Stripping the Soul Out of Yoga?

Yoga as it's practiced in American gyms has strayed far from its Indian roots

Growing up in India, I took yoga for granted. Part of the country's collective unconscious, it permeated the fabric of everyday life. When I had a headache, my grandmother would remark that doing a headstand would send some blood to my brain and lessen the pain. My grandfather did the Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar) on the terrace of our building every morning.

When I was 12, my mother sent my brother and me to take free yoga lessons from a retired army colonel. Every morning, we would join the other neighborhood striplings in the school playground, where the colonel bellowed out the names of the asanas (yoga poses) and corrected our posture with a sharp cane. In India, yoga is as much a part of daily life as Sanskrit chanting, meditation, and oil massages.

Indians don't separate yoga from daily life by putting it into a gym, as happens in America. Power yoga, for instance, is my pet peeve. Although it may provide a strenuous aerobic workout that is good for the heart, it totally ignores the mind-body connection that is the essence of yoga. Yoga, in India, is a spiritual practice more than a physical one. In America, they have adapted it to reap its physical rewards while paying scant heed to its spiritual aspects.


When I speak of yoga, I don't just mean hatha yoga, which is what most Westerners associate with the word. Hatha yoga--made up of the asanas (poses such as forward and back bends, as well as slow stretches aimed at improving circulation, flexibility, and balance) and pranayama (breathing practice)--is just one type of yoga, and in the grand scheme of things, the least important type as far as serious yogis (yoga disciples) are concerned.

The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means "to yoke." Yoga practices yoke--or unite--the self with God. A great yogi, Patanjali, codified yoga into a book called the Yoga Sutras some 5,000 years ago. Before Columbus discovered America and before Vasco da Gama initiated the spice trade between Portugal and India, Patanjali became obsessed with the mind-body connection and wrote a treatise about it.

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Shoba Narayan
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